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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The ‘Off Vintage’

A refreshing breeze is blowing through the stoic chateau on each side of the Gironde. An enlightening gust so obligatory that even the most austere Bordeaux aristocrat seems whimsically approachable. This breath of fresh air originated in the vineyards of Bordeaux during the 1999 harvest and has now blossomed into an 8 year old savior from the grim luxuries of big ticket claret. I will affectionately name our knight in shining armor ‘The Off Vintage.’ I shall explain why a bit of rain, an ever so slightly generous yield and lack of effusive sunshine can be the perfect recipe for Momma’s home-cooking in today’s market for Bordeaux wines.

My declaration of 1999 as a savior begins with a few tired old notions (some true, some not) and some classic clichés. Clichés that begin in Burgundy, labeling its followers as masochists waltzing through minefields in search of a coveted holy grail. Then there is the all too familiar naysayer approach towards New World frontiers, condemning them as void of terroir, finesse and lacking capacity to age. Which brings us to beating around the Bordeaux bush with its hedge funds, classic vintages of 'vin de garde' juxtaposed to the countless 'vintages of the century,' and of course the all too painful sense of patience. Say something too often and it becomes nearly meaningless, as if it were the Chateau owner crying wolf.

If Burgundy is for masochists, I say Bordeaux is for those w/ a pension for blue balls. Look but don’t touch. Shell out thousands up front for a product you won’t actually be able to hold for at least 2 years. Once you finally have the baby in your arms…..wait. Only this breed of consumer would pounce all over the opportunity to shell out well over 100 dollars a bottle (shh, it’s a steal!) for something of which the critics don’t recommended consumption of for nearly 2 decades. Such an arduous prison stay is indeed one without a conjugal visit.

I tire of the blockbuster vintages not only because of their cliché, but more so due to the agony associated with them. I, admittedly, adore Bordeaux. I respect and admire its longevity and all the treasures that await one who allows their bottles to reach maturity. But alas, I must drink! I must drink w/o being chided for committing infanticide, only to find a wall of tannin w/in Pandora’s box. Worse yet, when one actually enjoys young Bordeaux only to hear of the heresy they’ve committed, punctuated with the all too familiar “just wait, you aint seen nothing yet.” Suppose that brings additional light to the cliché of what constitutes a guilty Bordeaux pleasure (along with drooling over wines like Monbousquet that are unjustly delicious wines spawned from pitiful terroirs).

I feel I have set the scene sufficiently to delve into 1999 a bit, haven’t I? Allow me to demonstrate how this has crept into my soft spot of Bordeaux passion w/o the pain. But wait; does this creep into the realm of all those financial woes associated w/ purchasing mature vintages? Eh, not so much, least not when the vintage is sandwiched in between two vintages of the century (’98 for the right bank and the bicentennial vintage for just about everywhere). The Bordelais conjured some absolutely lovely wines from this unheralded year, eh-hem dare I default to “a classical vintage to be consumed in the midterm whilst you await the ’98 right bank chateau and ‘00s to reach maturity.” Ok, perhaps I’ll bite on that cliché as it doesn’t seem a painful one, least not in this instance.

The best of 1999 have blossomed into outstanding wines, if not the colossal blockbusters of their caddy-cornered vintages (phew, refreshing aint it?). Financially speaking, it’s imperative to look into back-vintage Bordeaux. Even if the Bordelais have priced themselves out of the American market in 2006, it’s had a domino effect of elucidating the relative value of previous years, in particular 1999 (at least for today’s writing purposes). Wines like Latour, Cheval Blanc, Margaux, Palmer and Lafite are still widely available for circa 150-300 dollars, some of which are literally one fifth the bloated price tag of their 2006 counterparts! Not only can you purchase close to 5 Cheval Blanc’s from 1999 for the price of one 2006, they are of comparable quality and…yikes, nearly mature! I’ve mentioned the big boys initially in 1999 to illustrate a more dramatic point, considering these wines are not cheap by any stretches of my imagination. Having said that, I find even more substance down the line of 1999.

The likes of Peby Faugeres (which, to my palate, was one of the most profound wines of the vintage), Monbousquet (that pesky petit chateau strikes again w/ another winner), Pavie Decesse, Canon La Gaffeliere, Ducru Beaucaillou, Clerc Milon, Clos de l’Oratoire, Pape Clement, Pavie, Montrose, Clos L’Eglise, Pavie Macquin, Smith Haut Lafitte, Chapelle d’Ausone, Lynch Bages, Malescot St. Exupery, Bon Pasteur and Pichon Baron are all either comparably priced (or much lower) than their ritzy, newly bottled 2006 versions. Not only that, they are all approaching a very beautiful window of maturity and drinking exceptionally well! Wines that you can purchase for under100 dollars and actually enjoy today. Their speculative potential is most likely limited (unless back vintages continue to appreciate from buying pressures of ludicrously priced young Bordeaux), but their pleasurable potential is certainly outstanding!

I’ve mentioned before that I consider years such as 1999 to be the meat and potatoes of Bordeaux (particularly because it has hit an 8 year old mark and is drinking so beautifully well), simply because it serves as a blissful reminder of why we hold this region’s wines in such high regard. This can be lost through the long nights on winesearcher.com, clamoring over futures, vintage speculation, Parker upgrades and downgrades and the all consuming pricing debates. I am throwing out this diatribe of 1999 as a life line to those of you that are at risk for losing the essence of what brought you to the banks of the Gironde in the first place. The elegance, supple textures, depth, additional layers of complexity and dinner partner of perfection that Bordeaux is….when you drink it. It is, in fact, a wine product meant to be drunk. To accompany family, food and commemorate the joys of life. A celebration, a symbol, a reminder or just because it tastes so damn good.

Whatever it is, the soul of wine requires to be viscerally experienced, not speculated upon or revered as an intangible trophy or cloth of luxury. It shouldn’t bring one pain or prejudice, it should bring delight. The heart of Bordeaux that I’d always found an attraction for had nothing to do with greed, sloth and arrogance. The heart is pure with history, symmetry and strength. Simple as that sounds, sometimes these foundational pleasures of life demand a simple recounting, just because. I hope these thoughts find you well, and if you don’t know where to look for these simple reminders, I suggest you start with a top notch 1999. Once it’s in the glass, you will see what I am talking about.

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